Pain sparks through my cheekbone like a firecracker as my opponent’s gloved fist connects with my jaw. A shocked murmur ripples through the crowd sitting in the seats surrounding the sparring mat. How long has the match lasted? Two seconds? Two minutes? My heart thunders in my ears. Sweat drenches my body, and it’s an effort to keep my bruised arms up and moving. Hell, every muscle and joint is on fire. He will end me if I don’t finish this in the next few moments. I’ve fought too hard over the last three years to let this jerk snatch the title within my grasp.
Nathan charges, attempting to wrap me up in a hold. I spin and punch left, missing his nose by a hair. Duck his roundhouse kick. Punch right, connecting with his temple. I barely evade his giant glove aimed for my jaw and throw my power into a quick, solid left jab to his midsection. He grunts and folds forward.
With the last bit of oomph, I grab his arm, leap into the air, wrap my legs around his skull, and force my body forward. My weight shoves him backward, and I drive a decent right punch to his temple as we fall. A sharp burst radiates through my fist and down my wrist. I don’t register the pain, only relief, as he hits the mat with a satisfying smack, my feet landing softly on either side of his head.
Game, set, match, motherfucker.
I plant my knee in the middle of his chest. Sweat drips off my chin onto my opponent’s bare, glistening torso. Perspiration saturates my black spandex shorts and tank top. Long wispy strands of hair escape my ponytail and ruffle with each heavy pant of breath as I scrutinize every twitch of meathead’s bulging muscles.
Agony creases his brow, but the rage in his hazel eyes stirs the aggressive nature I strive to control daily. He wants violence. I can oblige. At this moment, I no longer care about the pain. I want blood as severely as he does.
I take a deep breath in and force the bloodlust into a dark hole and do what’s expected. What I’m trained to do: ease back and observe my opponent.
When a full ten count passes, and he makes no counter move, the head Krav Maga instructor, Kurtis, strides onto the mat.
Every muscle prickles with aches and pains as I retreat to my corner and await the verdict. Deep inhale in through my swollen nose, out through my busted lip. I transfer my weight on the balls of my feet and shake out my burning arms and shoulders. The enormous sparring room overflows with soft, matted flooring, but when your ass hits those mats, they are anything but soft.
A hush settles over the crowd as Kurtis kneels next to my opponent, Nathan Connor. He speaks to him in a subdued whisper. I can’t understand what they’re saying, only the low, sexy rumble of his voice, but I don’t need to hear the words. My back has been on the mat more than I care to admit over the last three years, so the exact verbiage is etched in my brain.
“Are you all right? Do you require a doctor? Can you get up? Blah blah blah,” babbles through your ears. You nod and pray the torture has ended.
By the time Kurtis helps Nathan to his feet, my breathing is under control. Pain, my oldest and dearest playmate, has already begun a slow burn throughout my body, with my forearms and midsection taking the brunt. Dipshit wasn’t my only opponent today. I took down three others in various stages of combat. This ache will intensify in the next couple of hours if I don’t soak in an ice bath, ay-sap.
The watching crowd offers polite applause as the men walk to the center of the mat. Kurtis’s lips twitch, trying not to smile, but the proud twinkle in his vibrant regard gives him away. Nathan, on the other hand, holds his midriff with one arm, his red face twisted with resentment.
Aww, poor baby had his ass handed to him by a girl.
When Kurtis motions for me to join them, I offer Nathan a quick wink. He’s an arrogant, egotistical jerk, hitting on anything with a pair of breasts. With this defeat, I’ve checked off a box on my bucket list of things to bring me absolute joy.
With a deep inhale, I take my place next to Kurtis. His size never ceases to amaze me. At six-foot-eight and two hundred eighty pounds of pure muscle, he makes my respectable five-foot-six look like a munchkin from lollypop land. The top of my head doesn’t even reach his broad shoulders.
Kurtis reminds me of Thor in the Marvel movies, except taller, with a more serious disposition. He has the same short blond hair, piercing blue eyes, and a sexy smile with lush, full lips surrounded by a perfectly trimmed scruff. I’d consider dipping my toes into those waters if my tastes didn’t run toward the dark-haired, green-eyed variety.
During training with Kurtis, he strives for professionalism, but a sexual spark exists between us. It’s in the way he watches me longer than necessary, the low, gruff tone he uses when he pins me to the mat, or how his focus wanders to my lips like they are the finest whiskey and he’s a recovering alcoholic.
Okay, it’s not all one-sided. Kurtis’s strength, size, and good looks make my girly-bits tingle, and I feel all feminine and protected. I sigh with regret. I’d explore this attraction with him if I were any other woman. What girl with blood pumping through their veins wouldn’t?
I’ve witnessed it time and time again in my three years of training with him. One heated glance from those baby blues and the women swoon. Ready to offer their first-born child for a chance at a single night with the sexy beast. And even though his interest hums through my body, I value his friendship more. Since, ya know, I don’t possess many of those.
I’m the first to admit one glimpse at my resting bitch face, and most intelligent people avoid me. And if they’re brave enough to initiate a conversation, they quickly discover my sarcasm or standoffish attitude and disappear. I get it. I do. Although, this is who I am. Shaped by a past, my brain thinks I’m too stupid to handle.
At this juncture, what I require from Kurtis involves the unique way he drives my body and mind to the brink of my limits. Correction… I need it. Crave it. The pain and exhaustion center me, giving me a minor reset or reboot. Without it…
I halt the horrendous train of thought threatening to encroach as a tremble of unease shifts within me. Down that treacherous path lies guilt and shame, terror and uncertainty. Best to keep those things buried.
If I’m honest, I must admit; every guy I’ve found compelling gets compared to the man who inhabits my dreams—Logan. My delicious delusion. The one with the most beautiful green eyes, magic fingers, and talented tongue. No living, breathing dude could measure up because Logan’s an illusion, and most sane women know fiction always trumps reality in the fantasy department. However, there’s something screwy about my obsession with him, and the fact, the only time I get off is when I’m sleeping.
And like the old saying goes, ‘All good things must come to an end’ because the fantasies stopped two years ago. As did my outlet for my aggressive nature. Oh, and mind-boggling orgasms. The apprehension and fear clawing at my insides over Logan’s absence, scrapes through my brain like rough sandpaper, the dust of my mind disappearing like fine wood shavings.
The longer he’s MIA, the more my illicit needs take control. What I lovingly refer to as the itch builds until fire ants party on my skin, biting and digging until aggression takes hold. It requires a road trip to a specific club where membership involves a background check and a clean bill of health.
I guess I have the cowboy from Montana to thank for introducing me to this wicked alternative. Rudy taught me, measured pain releases the fear and uncertainty we can’t control. I will never forget that night in his playroom under the bar. He gave me the tools to keep going, and not let the nightmares and doubts about my past influence or hurt me.
“To control your demons,” he’d said. “You must learn to submit to the fear. Let me teach you that pain can bring rewards. It offers you an outlet to possess dominance over your inner anguish, whatever it may be, by submitting your mind and body to the outer pain measured appropriately with pleasure.”
And he was right. What Rudy offered me was life-changing. A type of authority over the unknown in my past that dictated my life. Most people might find this disturbing or confusing, so the few friends I allow close don’t know about the itch or the depths I sink to manage it. And they never will. As much as it helps me mentally, it’s not something I’m proud to admit. In fact, I’m downright ashamed that, one, I even require it, and two, I get off on it.
In my day-to-day existence, I demand complete control. Like most people, I’m under the delusion I live my life on my terms. Nobody tells me what I can or cannot do. Well, except for Kurtis during training and this one obsessive need, I can’t let go. Like a junkie, I tell myself it’s the last time. Of course, it’s never the case. I surrender myself to another person. Someone who provides what my soul cries out for—pain, not sex, just pain.
It calms the itch, which keeps me… from a nuclear meltdown. Unfortunately, the longer Logan is absent, the further my mind and body breakdown, and the aggression surges forward unrestrained. Agony flares through every joint and sinew. The ever-present fear of hurting someone bubbles below the surface, producing nightmares to torment my sleep.
However, everything eases after a club session, just like my brief night with Rudy in Montana. I’m… better. Focused. Calm. The unrelenting itch subsides, and my body tingles and resonates with awakening. The desire to fight, kill or maim recedes, and the painful, physical episodes decrease, enabling me to move on to another day, another week.
So, sue me. What’s a girl to do?
“Excellent match. Nicki, with this final victory, you’ve passed your brown belt exam with flying colors. Congratulations.” Kurtis raises my gloved hand in victory.
God bless him for not jerking my arm up, but son of a bitch. The pain radiating through my shoulder makes me nearly scream, but I lock it down and work to keep my expression passive, not to show any weakness.
The room erupts in applause, hollers, and whistles from men and women from my class, all the different levels of programs, and even newcomers here to learn more about self-defense.
Out of the corner of my eye, Nathan stomps off the mats toward the lockers, but I dismiss him and grin. I did it. After three long years of definite blood and sweat, I am now a brown belt in Krav Maga.
And a total fucking badass.
Kurtis releases me and raises a large palm to quiet the room. “Not only has she mastered all stages of hand-to-hand combat required for this certification, but Nicki Graves also excelled at all weapons training, earning the highest marksmanship scores of any student in the history of this dojo.”
I press my lips together, embarrassed by the praise, even as pleasure floods through me.
“We are proud of all Nicki’s accomplished since joining Red Dawn. We hope… I hope… she will proceed on to the black belt levels, as I desire a worthy opponent to continue to hone my skills,” he concludes with a sexy, lopsided smirk.
His smile obtains the desired effect amongst the women who eye him as if he’s a T-Bone steak: they cheer and gather closer, drawn to his sexual appeal like a moth to fire.
Yep, he’ll have them signing up to get the shit knocked out of them in no time.
After Kurtis removes my gloves, I receive numerous pats on the back and congrats before the group disperses. My sexy trainer leans close and murmurs in a low whisper, “I’m proud of you, Nicki. You defeated your opponent with a calculated swiftness. Impressive.”
Kurtis’s husky tone washes over me, reminding me of another deep, sexy voice. It filled my mind and brought me off more times than I could count. Fuck. Why does my chest ache with longing at his absence? My fists clench against the throb, and I bite down on the inside of my lip. The copper tang of my blood dabbles over my tongue, and predictable as ever, the pain centers me. After a slow inhale, my fingers relax. My visceral response to the mere thought of my erotic dream man sends shock waves through me every damn time.
Are my dreams of Logan preventing my attraction to the sexiest trainer alive from growing? I question my sanity every time I’m in Kurtis’s presence. Is my obsession with a fictional man screwing my chance at a genuine relationship?
“Thinking of moving on to the black belt training?” he asks.
“Yes, of course,” I respond and place my palm on one of his warm, bulging biceps. “I require some time off before I continue, though.” It takes effort to lift my lips into some semblance of a smile as I peer into the pretty blue depths. Shit, the fatigue is setting in faster than I expected.
“Agreed.” He zeros in on my abused mouth, and something flutters in my gut. “Give your body time to recover, then we’ll get back at it.” Kurtis’s tenor is low and seductive as he continues, “But don’t wait too long.”
With brutal force, his need stretches into the space between us, and I catch my breath. His biceps twitch, and I jerk my hand away as if scalded. To cover the slight rebuff, I quickly analyze my nails. Nibble on one. Do a visual inspection of the mats. Adjust my sports bra. When what I want to do is melt through the floor in embarrassment.
Kurtis observes me fidgeting for several agonizing seconds, prolonging my discomfort before he shakes his head with a laugh and rescues me again. “Are you singing or working tonight at the LeLoo?” he asks with a knowing grin.
Blue sapphires shimmer underneath the impossibly long lashes, and when his large, warm hand lands on my shoulder, his desire blasts into my bones, causing the flutters in my gut to morph into tremors.
Why does a mere touch intensify a person’s emotions? Unlike my ability to control my need for violence, this damn talent has worsened over the years. Another added benefit to my sessions at the club—it lessens the severity of my weird abilities.
I’m not normal. I’ve always known it. At first, I balked at using this emotion-sensing thing to aid me in reading my opponents during training. Some would construe it as cheating. Although I realized, or rationalized, it’s not my fault they’re instinctually challenged.
With a forced nonchalance, I retreat a step from Kurtis, my stare focused on his chin. If I looked into those heated sapphires, I’ll forget my reservations, strip off all my clothes, and beg him to take me to the mats right here with a dozen people milling around.
Jesus, I’m screwed up.
“I’m singing tonight. You planning on coming by?” I ask, taking another small step back despite my hormones raging out of control, although the mention of my job spikes my heart rate.
The LeLoo Blues Bar allows me to implement one of the other passions in my life—performing in front of a live audience. Singing is another outlet I’ve learned to employ. It helps keep me… grounded.
When I perform, it’s not so much about the thrill of the patrons enjoying my music. It’s more of a channel for the turmoil buried within me. I can safely pour my emotions out through the lyrics of songs, and instead of fearing rejection, or appearing weak, the patrons clamor for more. Music is a form of expression I’m most comfortable with. And bonus, I get paid for spewing all my psychotic shit in public.
To have Kurtis in the audience supporting me, his lustful gaze glued to me, makes my night. I know. I’m fucked up and selfish. My heart and soul belong to the devilishly sexy man in my dreams, but I rely on Kurtis too. He came into my life when up was down, down was up, and mentally I was hanging on by a thread. My dream time with Logan was sporadic, and the drudge of being on the road took its toll. Mentally and physically.
However, the second I walked into Red Dawn and Kurtis shook my hand, acceptance settled over me. This was what my mind needed—controlled discipline. The big man took me under his wing and reconstructed me from the scared, strung-out girl weighed down by her time on the run, into a resilient, skilled woman able to defend herself and tackle any challenge with confidence.
So why am I reluctant to answer the craving in his stare? When he watches me with such intensity, a part of me thrills at the notion of him sitting in the audience, nursing a glass of whiskey, legs spread in the way manly men do, and patiently biding his time until my set is over. Then he’d walk me to my truck, ready to offer me the dominant promise in his smoldering gaze. Kurtis is a big man, but Riddick’s back seat is spacious. We could make it work.
My eyes widen for a moment at my racy imagination, and I shake off the fantasy with an inward snort, remembering passion has never been my strong suit. Sex is just sex with no strings. I’ve kept my limited sexual exploits to total strangers and one-night stands. No way will I embroil Kurtis with my fucked-up issues.
Besides, I’ll likely tend bar after my set since the club is often a bartender short. It’s kinda cool. Between singing, bartending, and tips, I generate a decent living doing what I love. How many people can claim that?
What’s shocking, for someone with a damaged brain, I’ve developed several passions in my brief existence on this planet: Most recently, Krav Maga, my ever-expanding boot and gun collection, especially my Glock, a.k.a., Annie. And the sustenance of life: coffee. I would’ve died somewhere on the road long ago if it weren’t for caffeine.
“Of course, I’ll be there.” Kurtis says, bringing me back to the present. His desire rolls into me in scalding waves, and I grit my teeth even as my nipples pebble in response. He steps closer, and I catch my breath. “Nicki, I…”
“Holy shitballs, girlfriend, you were amazing!” Alex slides in between us, giving Kurtis a weird glare over her shoulder before crushing me in an embrace.
Oooowww. Fuck, I hurt all over.
“You looked like you needed rescuing,” she whispers in my ear, and I grin despite the shooting pain through my ribs.
Alexandria Svaldana is my best friend and roommate. With an inward grimace, I recall the day, not long after I started, she came waltzing into the bar seeking a job.
She eyed me up and down before announcing, “Girlfriend, you look like shit. Trust me when I say you’re in desperate need of me in your life.”
I’d raised an irritated eyebrow at her as I wiped down the bar, taking in her wild red hair, humor-filled blue peepers, and perfect makeup. On anyone else, the crazy mane would’ve appeared as if they’d stuck their finger in a light socket, but on her, it was... sexy. She carried that just-fucked appearance to perfection.
“God, I love your face,” she’d laughed. “But we will turn your frown upside down, sista. Trust me.”
Since then, she’s buzzed around me like a fly on shit. She even wormed her way into becoming my roommate when I took the big scary ass puckering plunge and bought my house last year, putting down roots for the first time in my life. That I can remember.
I shake my head. Alex and I are complete opposites. She oozes energy and falls in love at the drop of a hat. Grew up in a loving family with caring parents, an older brother, Tedri, who sizzles with intensity but dotes on her, and Skadra, her younger sister, to a sickening degree. Weird names, I know.
I can’t even remember who bred me, let alone spoiled me, and nobody would accuse me of being outgoing or boisterous. I’m deep in the introvert category. My dry, sick sense of humor, which most people don’t get, I keep to myself. Unless I’ve been drinking. Then all bets are off.
No matter what, though, I never forget my one personal rule. It’s a life mantra that chants through my fragmented mind every time I meet a new guy—never fall in love. Love makes you weak. And we can never be weak.
“We must party tonight. Celebrate your victory.” Her giggle snatches my overworked brain from the past like a lifeline. At five feet, perhaps an inch, she’s height-challenged—her phrase, not mine—with a slim athletic body and the cutest pointed ears. It’s the one feature she hates with a passion. Good thing all her hair keeps them hidden.
“Like you need a reason to party,” I grunt as I extract myself from her painful grip on my shoulders. If there’s one element my roomy excels at, it’s partying.
Alex bobs on the balls of her feet, clapping like a two-year-old. “True. But this is a proper motive. Your elevation from warrior princess to warrior queen.”
I snort. Until I realize she’s serious. “Warrior princess? I’ve never been a damn princess of anything in my entire life.”—That I know of, anyway— “Warrior… yes. Princess… no.”
I nod to Kurtis, then head for the locker room as images of girly girls in pink pom-pom dresses wearing tiaras and gobs of makeup flash through my mind. In the background, I hear Kurtis’s taunting, sexy laugh.
“Okay, okay, maybe princess wasn’t the right word.” Alex jogs to keep up with my long strides. “You get what I mean, though. We must celebrate your brown belt victory. By the way,” she continues, oblivious to the fact I’m trying to ignore her, “you were sooo damn impressive out there. I’m a dick girl all the way, but I must admit, you turned me on.”
“Oh my God.” I roll my eyes. Why am I still shocked by what spews out of Alex’s mouth? The filter between her brain and lips was absent the first day I met her. And yippee, she’s telling the truth because, hey, no brain freeze.
“What?” she offers with fake innocence before clasping her hands together like she’s at prayer. “Please, come out tonight.”
“No. I’m singing tonight.” With purposeful strides, I head straight for the big stainless-steel tub of torture next to the lockers. My body craves the sauna—to breathe in the warmth and steam, lower my lids and bask in my achievement today. Unfortunately, it will have to wait. Cold first, then heat.
“Okay,” she pouts. “After, then.”
“No,” I whine. “Tomorrow. Right now, I’m dragging this sore, beat-up body into an ice bath, a sauna, and a shower, swallowing massive amounts of ibuprofen, and doing my damn set at the bar. Then I have the long trek home to endure where I will pass out in my bed for the next eight blissful hours.”
“Buzzkill.” She grumbles. “Okay, okay. Manana. No excuses. Just because you’ve achieved warrior queen status doesn’t mean I won’t drag your butt out of the house to have fun.” She wags one perfect, manicured finger back and forth in front of my face.
I inhale a slow breath and pray for patience as the adrenaline dissipates further, the aches and pains making themselves known. I could curl up into a ball on the cold floor and forget the rest, but my body would punish me for it later.
“Fine. Now get your skinny ass out of here so I can torture myself in peace.”
Oblivious to my irritation, Alex skips to my side. Her short floral skirt swishes against tan legs, and her blue irises sparkle with glee. She kisses my cheek triumphantly and whispers, “I knew you’d see it my way.”
I sniff. “Don’t I always.”
When she steps back, her sudden shift in her demeanor startles me. The long lashes, dark with mascara, lower over the stunning sapphires looking everywhere but at me. Now what?
“Don’t wait up for me,” she mutters, and my instincts tingle. “I, ah, met someone last night, and since you refuse to go out, I’m gonna satisfy my neglected vajayjay with Mr. Yummy.”